“I can’t have sulfites! What wines do you have that are sulfite free?” Guests cry out to me frequently with this concern. Or a guest will simply ask for an organic wine, only to be confused or upset when they see “contains sulfites” on the label.
Sulfites are substances that naturally occur in some foods and the human body. They are a regulated food additive used as a preservative. The Romans first discovered that they could be used to make foods last longer and preserve color and flavor. Foods that contain the most added sulfites are: pickled food and vinegar, dried fruit, maraschino cherries, canned coconut milk, wine and cider, vegetable juice, some soft drinks, grape juice, lemon and lime juice, condiments, guacamole, dehydrated or pre-cut potatoes, fresh or frozen shrimp and some processed meats. Sulfites can even be found in medicines such as topical creams and eye drops, as well as in hair colors or bleaches, skin lighteners, fake tanning lotions, body lotion, shampoo and body wash. Sounds pretty common, so is it that bad?
Sulfites occur naturally in all wine to some extent. It is used to arrest fermentation and may also be added to prevent spoilage and oxidation. It can also protect wine from bacteria. Without it, grape juice would quickly become vinegar. Organic wines are not sulfite free, but generally have lower amounts than non-organic wines, and regulations stipulate lower maximum sulfite content for these wines. In the United States, wines bottled after mid-1987 must have a label stating they contain sulfites if they contain more than 10 parts per million.
Red wine has naturally occurring anti-oxidants from the skins and stems of the grapes that are acquired during fermentation, but conventional wine makers add sulfites anyway, to promote age worthiness. White wine and rosé are given a larger dose because they were not left in contact with the skins after crushing, therefore containing less natural anti-oxidants. Sweet wine gets the biggest dose because sugar combines with and binds to a high proportion of any So2 added.
Histamines are the chemical that set off allergy symptoms that most of us in Florida are all too familiar with. They are also found in a lot of the foods we eat like fresh strawberries, tomatoes, and ripe fruits. Clinical studies have shown that histamines in foods have nothing to do with allergic reactions to the foods, and that includes wine. If you can eat these foods and not be bothered by the histamines, wine will not affect you either.
What about tyramine? This is another naturally-occurring substance found in wine and other foods like cheese, chocolate, and smoked or cured meats. Again, unless eating these foods cause problems for you it is unlikely the amount of tyramine found in wine will.
If you think tannin that is found in the skin of grapes and the wood barrels used to age wine is to blame,
you would have the same effect by drinking strong black tea or even eating grapes themselves.
Then people ask me, “Why is it when I am in Europe I can drink wine and feel fine?” Well wines in France and Italy are not made differently than wine in the US. The only difference is in Europe they are not required to put “contains sulfites” on the label. It all comes down to lifestyle and how wine is consumed. When you are on vacation enjoying some vino, you have water on the table and healthy food to consume with it. Then you walk around and see the sites, then stop off in another cafe and have more wine and some snacks, all the while exercising and consuming water in between. Water helps moderate dehydration and food slows alcohol absorption. When we are at home we tend to pop a cork, sit and drink without healthy food or any water at all, and that can have a huge effect on how we feel afterward.
So before you limit yourself to what wine you can consume be sure to try all the foods that may cause the same symptoms and see a doctor if they persist. Otherwise you are missing out on a whole world of wonderful wines due to long-held misbeliefs about the ingredients in them!
Heather Hitson, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine Consultant Lady Lake